American Graffiti Review

American Graffiti is a 1973 teen drama/comedy written and directed by George Lucas, cowritten with Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck and produced by Francis Ford Coppola. Though this is Lucas' premiere film before Star Wars and it garnered massive critical praise. It was nominated for 5 Academy Awards, including Best Picture of that year.

Story
The film takes place over a single night, the last night of freedom for five recently graduated high school students. Each of them has their own set of stories throughout the evening; one is trying to find a beautiful woman he saw, one is saddled with looking after a 15 year old girl, a couple tries to figure out their relationship and a nerd tries everything he can to get laid.

In spite of so many plots and subplots going on it never feels cluttered and you feel like every character gets their appropriate moment to shine and their arcs are all well paced throughout the film. However, I feel like some of the arcs were left behind while others were wrapped up. The guy looking for the beautiful woman also gets tangled up with some kind of gang and they try to initiate him. He does what the initiation requires, but then that story arc is all but dropped by the end of the movie. Thankfully, however, they focussed on the story arc that mattered: him deciding whether or not to go off to college or stay in town.

The characters are good, though a bit generic. I couldn't tell you the names of any of the characters, only what their motivations/stereotypes were (nerd, James Dean etc). However, this doesn't mean they're not enjoyable. Nearly all of them are like able characters who are fun to watch interact off of one another. Most of their likability comes from the screenplay, which I was actually a bit nervous about. Even though this was from Lucas' pre-prequel days, I've always considered him a better technician than a storyteller, so with this being his very first big budget film I was worried that the screenplay wouldn't be that great, if good at all. Thankfully, though, the screenplay is really good for the most part. These high school kids talk like real high schoolers; they swear, they bicker, they make fun of each other, but they always like each other in the end, which is really nice to see. The script has a surprising amount of good jokes even though it's not a comedy. In fact, some times the comedy doesn't even come from jokes; sometimes you're just laughing along with whatever the characters are doing, be that messing with one another or just having a good time.

One of the things that I believe American Graffiti does best is showing teenage stupidity. When you're young, you make a lot of dumb decisions that can lead to unforgettable moments in your life and Lucas and the other writers understood this. Whether it be to get laid, prove oneself, gain acceptance or fall in love, teenagers do dumb things and these teenagers are no exception. It gives the film a sense of authenticity that everybody, teens and adults, can relate to because they've been there too.

Technical
For a freshman film, the film is spectacular on a technical level. Everything about the film completely captures the style of the 1960s to a t. What really sets this film apart from other depictions of the 60s is the obvious love and nostalgia that Lucas and company had for that time period. Every car is a shiny muscle drag racer, the cities are filled with bright, playful neon that shines from every building and the dinners are clean and colorful.

I was surprised how well Lucas grasped the basics of color coordination with his first film. Even though all the colors are loud they never seem to clash or hurt your eyes.

The lighting is also really well done. They were really good with making it look like night time while also using lights to show the actors' faces. I think they were just using standard white film lighting, but it doesn't look unnatural. It just looks like they're being lit by the street lamps or the lights around them.

One sore spot in the technical side is the sound editing. Sometimes they'll change which take's audio they're using for a scene and it's really noticeable. For example, two people will be talking and then you'll hear a noticeable quality change in the audio of one of the people talking. This happened in the exact same shot or scene multiple times in the film and it's really distracting.

Another weak spot is the editing, by which I mean there were some scenes that they left in that I really think should've been cut. For example, there's a random scene where Richard Dreyfuss' character comes across two people making out in a car. He walks up to them, awkwardly laughs at them and then the scene ends. What was the point of that? I guess they were trying to use it as a transition to the next scene, but there was no need. This takes place right after the ending of a conversation and that would've been perfect for a scene transition. Just end the conversation, have Dreyfuss walk away and make a J cut to the next scene. Simple. There was also one time when the couple is having a conversation and there's a moment where he's just asking her for popcorn. During that dialogue, they cut to the nerd chasing after a woman and then they just cut back to the couple. Why did you keep that shot in that particular scene? There was no need for it and it ruins the pacing of the conversation.

Some of the cinematography is kind of odd, too. A lot of times the actors are given too much headspace, leaving their chins very close to the bottom of the screen and making it feel oddly claustrophobic.

The actors are all really good for the assumed age (teens/young adults). All of them add charm and energy to their respective characters and I honestly couldn't imagine somebody else playing them.

The soundtrack is an absolute must have if you're a fan of 60s rock. The film has almost no original score, but instead chooses to use the greatest hits of the era.

Summary: In my opinion American Graffiti shows that the Star Wars trilogy wasn't a fluke; George Lucas does have legitimate talent as a storyteller and should even get more directing jobs. It's a fantastic first attempt by an ammeter filmmaker and an exceptional coming of age story in its own right. The nostalgia for the 60s is infectious, the characters are memorable and it's just the right amount of bittersweet by the end. It's an underrated classic that everybody should check out.

B+

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